Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Ask a Lady, Special Edition: Abuse and Parents

Would you have any advice for me? My dad was violent and physically abusive to my mom and me. She died when I was a kid, and that made him more violent. I am now an adult, and have been for many years, and I have been avoiding my dad as much as possible, but I begrudgingly take his phone calls. I'm on meds for anxiety and depression, which I believe is a result of the abuse.

Now my dad is getting old, and he wants to be my best friend or something, and have some kind of loving father-daughter relationship. I am definitely not up for that. What I want more than just about anything in the world is for him to be completely out of my life. On the other hand, he is completely alone. He has no friends, he has not dated since my mom died, and I am his only living family. I don't want to confront him about the abuse, because I don't want him to spend his final years contemplating how he abused his wife and only child. I don't want him to spend his final years all alone with his only child refusing to speak to him, either. He is reasonably healthy, mentally sound, and enjoys a generous retirement plan, so he doesn't need me for any practical reasons.

I don't want to make his final years horrible, but it is horrible for me to even talk to him. What do I do?

Hey girl. Abuse is such a confusing betrayal, isn't it, especially when it comes at the hands of someone who was supposed to be one of your first and best protectors? I 100% get why this is such a conflict for you, because no matter what he's done, he's still your father, and so your heart stays hooked. Why? I don't know. Maybe it's cultural, maybe it's biological, maybe it's a cultural-biological fucked up wire mother thing (I will never not talk about wire mothers). The upshot is that no matter what else has happened, you keep feeling like maybe things will change and he will become the father he should have been all along. (Pretty sure this is a fantasy that all abused/abandoned children have as long as their parents are still living.) You keep feeling like somehow you owe him your fidelity, your loyalty, your love, even if he so clearly violated his parental obligations to you. And you probably also feel a little disgusted every time you have these surges of involuntary love/obligation/desperation.

And so here we are. You're a Grown-Ass Lady who has been saddled with the task of grieving and untangling years of trauma and confusion and pain, and now, long after you needed him, your dad wants a piece of you.

So what do you do? I want to address both the circumstances under which you WOULDN'T do anything for him and the circumstances under which you might. And in both cases, I think there's ample room for you to speak your piece.

What really strikes me about your note is that if you were to try to have a relationship with him, there would be pretty much nothing in it for you, nothing for you to gain. It would, as you envision it, serve his needs exclusively. And if that's the case, for fuck's sake, do not put yourself through misery and anguish for him. You did that for him for years. You do not need to continue to protect him from himself, bear his pain and suffering for him, or spare him the consequences of his own choices. Because it sounds like that's what you'd be doing. I'm not saying you would continue to suffer his abuse, but under these terms, you would both be re-enacting that relationship.

You do not owe him a thing. Sure, it's sad that he's alone in his last years, but whose fault is it that he has no friends? Whose fault is it that he hasn't had an intimate relationship? Whose fault is it that his only child doesn't want to speak to him? Whose fault is it that he was unwilling to get help when he needed it? The quality of his final years is on him, sisterfriend, not on you. He has built the life he has, and he could have chosen differently. Why should he spend the final years of his life not having to contemplate how he abused his wife and child? You will spend the rest of your life contemplating it no matter what he does. Why does he get to be free?

And yet. Since he probably spent years blaming you for the quality of his life, of course, like an old broken bone that aches when it's gonna rain, part of you is itching to take the blame again. It's familiar, isn't it? You don't have to take it on again. If the only reasons for you to do this involve meeting your father's needs, fuck it. Fuck him. And I would tell him exactly why you feel that way, too. I'd tell him that he abused you and you've spent years trying to heal from it, that you don't owe him anything, that he's gotten the life he's built for himself, that love is not enough.

But it's also possible to get something out of this if you really want to, I think. I mean, ideally you would get what he owes you: his contrition, his sorrow, his apology. Ideally you would get that from him. But we both know that's a (very rich) fantasy. What I want to focus on instead is what you can do for yourself in this situation, what you could get from a relationship with him that doesn't rely on him or open you up for more disappointment. Because you are (and it bears repeating) a Grown-Ass Lady! You raised yourself! You don't need him to take care of you in order to get what you need! (Proud of you, girlfriend.) And you don't have to forgo your own care on his behalf anymore.

So here is what I want you to think about: what would it mean to go ahead and try to have a relationship with him without trying to protect him from his own pain or from recognizing or acknowledging yours? What would be meaningful for you? What would you want? What if you told him that you were willing to try to have a relationship with him, but that you can't do that unless the two of you acknowledge and address his abuse? Of course, he might not be willing to do that. He might, for example, deny that he ever abused you. And then you'll know that there is no way for you to get anything valuable from a relationship with him — but you will also have said the unsayable thing to him. You will also have told the truth about your relationship to the person who most needs to hear it.

If you do end up writing to him — either to set boundaries for a possible relationship or to foreclose it as a possibility — I would do it by writing a letter. A real letter, a handwritten and dropped in a mailbox letter. I suggest this partly because he won't be able to react immediately — to hammer off a shitty email or yell at you or hang up on you. It's a way to protect yourself. And once you've written the letter, you have done your part. However he reacts is up to him. But you have done what you can do, and maybe, at the very least, you'll feel a little bit freer.

And finally, because I am just A Lady and not a trained profesh of any kind, I also wonder if you are in therapy. A therapist could be a great support for you as you move forward with this and work through your relationship with your dad (because there IS a relationship, even if he's not participating in it) now and in the future.

I'm so sorry that it's not over. I wish more than anything that it could just be over for you, whether you choose to open yourself up to him again or not, but it's not over. In some ways, it never will be. Which is why I think you deserve a chance to tell the truth while he can still hear it, even if he doesn't want to. You deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve it. I swear to you, you do.

Previously: How to Get Over Heartbreak.

A Lady is one of several rotating ladies who know everything. Do you have any questions for A Lady?

76 Comments / Post A Comment

Michelle Bruton-Delgado@facebook

oh my god. i don't know by what combination of molecules and butterfly wings this article ended up here, now, but i'm so glad it did. this is my sitch, exactly, only i am adopted and that adds a layer of shit frosting to the turd cake. it's so good to hear someone say that you don't owe your fucked-up parent anything, because sometimes? sometimes it feels like the entire world is judging you for being a bad daughter. thank you, thank you for this post


@Michelle Bruton-Delgado@facebook Wow, me too. I can't believe there's someone else out there who feels the way I do. That's kind of mind blowing. Thanks for making me feel less alone

Tammy Pajamas

I would recommend sending that letter with delivery confirmation of some sort so that you are certain that he gets it.


@Tammy Pajamas Yes, excellent suggestion. Also, I'd say keep a copy of the letter for yourself! Because if he does want to talk about it, and he starts referencing the letter, you'll want to have it in hand too as he might start twisting the words against you.


Excellent advice, A Lady. Just wanted to re-emphasize the point that if he is alone, he has done it to himself. He is not the innocent victim here, and whatever fortress of solitude he is in now is one he built with his own actions. It's not up to you to make it easier for him.

And that last line - "You deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve it." - weeping.


@Bebe That last line definitely made this room a little dusty. So much dust in my eyes.


Terrific response, A Lady. My dad was verbally abusive and when I've told my therapist that it seems pointless to explain to him at this late date (I'm an Adult Lady as well) how much he hurt me and why that is the reason I don't want to talk to him, don't want to go see him, snap easily at him, etc., she said, "Why?" She thinks explaining to him how he did hurt me all those years ago will at least help him understand my reactions to him and at the very least get it off my chest, and may even elicit some kind of recognition of or apology for his actions. I haven't said anything to him yet, but good luck to you, Reader.

Kelli Marks

Thank you for telling her she doesn't have to have a relationship with her parent. I've cut ties with my mom for numerous reasons and It was a difficult decision. For all the people who say we 'owe it to our parents' I have to agree with Michelle's comment and the writer here, we don't. Our parents owed it to us to be better parents. Do you know how hard it is to live life without a mother? That person who is supposed to be there for you no matter what? And I can't grieve for her because she's still here, she's just a heartless bitch that doesn't deserve her children.
To the person asking the question, do what's best for you. He already did what he thought was 'best for him.'


@Kelli Marks
"Do you know how hard it is to live life without a mother?" Thank you for saying so eloquently, what I feel.
To the lady who wrote: I ended contact with my parents (abusive father, enabler mother) when I was 22. I felt guilty for some time, because guilt is the emotion of the abused child, particularly when the abuser is a narcissist. The sense of loss also needed to be worked through, but I DO NOT REGRET IT one little bit now.
I eventually realised that by cutting ties, I protected myself, and acted like a parent by protecting the abused child I had been, and this act has been so healing.
My opinion is that you should confront him only if you really want to. There is no obligation for you to do so. You have the right, the permission if you will, to walk away. And keep walking. It's really liberating. Good luck to you.


@Kelli Marks
My Dad was abused by his father, and my Dad reacted by taking away his love from his father. Sounds reasonable doesn't it? The problem is, as my Dad explains it now at the age of 78, is that the anger and hurt and desire to love doesn't go away. He believes he would have been better off trying to resolve his relationship with his father, as an adult. In a way, giving his abusive father the love and understanding of a parent - reversing the roles. Because in many ways, the abuser never was a parent. Food for thought.

Michelle Bruton-Delgado@facebook

@Dunemi: i think each situation is different, and i am really reluctant to say that that kind of compassionate nurturing of your parent is universally healthy. i think if the parent reaches out and says "hey, i did these shitty things to you, and i am very sorry and would like to make amends" then sure, build that relationship. but nobody should feel like they must do that, you know?

Nicole Díaz Nelson

this is such a moving post-- a lady, you are awesome, and so are you, lady who wrote. what I keep telling myself is that being an adult doesn't mean taking on responsibiliy for your childhood and your parents. I still struggle a lot with that. taking their shit on sometimes gives me a false sense of strength, like, I'm stronger than they are, I am in control of them, I am better than them, I am so mature and adult. but I have to force myself to remember that I'm not supposed to take that on, I'm not built for it and I shouldn't have to because it's their fucking problems. I know how hard it is to disentangle your own shame and guilt and sense of responsibility from this situation. But it is possible and once you do, then you can decide what's really best for you, with nothing to do with them. good luck, to the writer and all the ladies out there, and stay strong.


I AM a "trained profesh" (love that, btw) and this is an excellent, excellent response, A Lady. Best of luck to you, letter-writer.


This Lady (I'm assuming the stock photos are used as avatars and correspond to the same writers as they rotate?) is consistently spot-on. I want her to be my therapist - no credentials required beyond being awesome.

superfluous consonants

Underline, a million times, the question about what YOU want. You are the only safeguard of your mental and emotional health, and you owe it to yourself, to all the work you've done finding doctors and getting yourself on meds, to remember that. You're going to be stuck with yourself long after he's gone, and a healthy YOU is more important than a guilt-free HIM.

So. What do you want? Is a warm and fuzzy relationship with your abusive parent going to make you miserable? Fuck him. Is letting him die alone going to haunt you the rest of your days? Maybe write him, then, or call. But make it on your terms. YOU are doing HIM a favor, one he has not earned, that comes only from your sense of grace and kindness. So make sure you're kind to yourself first, k?


@superfluousconsonants Agreed. In situations like this, you need to do what is going to make you comfortable in the long run - not him. In 20 years, are you going to regret no contact or be happy about it? No judgment, but you need to take the long view.


What a kind and sensitive response.

I would add: just as you could not make him stop being abusive as a child, just as there was no perfect way to act or not act to make him stop being mean... there is no way you can make him happy in his later years, either. You can't make him change, not by anger or hatred or true love, either. The way he acts is the way he is determined to act, and it has nothing to do with anybody around him. You could hang out with the dude, but you can't make him happy now anymore than you could make him happy before. It's just, not hanging out with him? He gets to use you as an excuse for why he's not happy, which seems like such a simple, transparent lie, but it's amazingly effective when you're, you know, not an abusive fuck and you actually give a crap about other people and their feelings. Whether or not he's a sad sack has nothing to do with you, but if he tries to make you feel like it is about you, it's because he knows you're a good person, and a good person can be suckered into giving more than their fair share. So, at least know that: your dad knows you're a good kid, a loving kid. If you weren't, he wouldn't bother trying to twist your arm emotionally.

Remember you two aren't speaking the same language. The kindness you want to give him is not the kindness he will receive. He doesn't have the receptors for it -- he shut them off, and only he can turn them back on. You will come at him with, "I am here to be a good daughter who loves you," and because you do not magically make him not-rageful, not-hateful, not-lonely, because you don't fill that gaping hole within him that makes him hurt others for emotional gratification, he will hear, "I am not trying hard enough because I am not good enough and do not love you the way you deserve." You can pour all your love onto him, but his definition of love is different than yours; his definition of love means it's okay to hit, while your definition of love means it's okay to be miserable to make somebody else happy. Those definitions are galaxies apart in intent, morals, and worth. You can give him all your love, but he won't understand what you're giving him, because what he wants from you is something you haven't, in your whole lifetime, figured out how to give, and what you can give him is something, in his whole lifetime, he hasn't figured out how to accept. Give him whatever time or feeling you want, but know that you're giving it for your own self, and not for him -- he may never understand or appreciate it, so only give if you understand and appreciate what you are giving.


I've got goosebumps.


@________ - Just...wow. Edith, please give this commenter a job.


Beautiful response, A Lady. I would just add an 'amen' about the suggestion to see a therapist. My therapist helped me get over all kinds of baggage around my parents so I could be a better mother to my daughter.

She also helped me deal with an abuse situation and forgive the perpetrator, not excusing what he'd done but working through my rage and sadness so they weren't permanent lodestones around my neck. If you can work through your emotions about your dad, it may help you to truly free yourself from him. All the best.


I could have written this letter, and the ask-er did a great job of articulating the issue, I think. A Lady gave very good, compassionate advice, but in the end, I don't know if there is a solution. In my world, at least, it goes like this: I have little or nothing to gain from relationship with him. Telling him how he hurt me will do no good, and he'll never give me what I need. But the guilt of not maintaining a relationship, at least at a distance, feels worse, in some fucked-up way. It's a lose-lose. The only thing that helps me cope is knowing that I'm young, well-educated, and (reasonably) emotionally stable, and I want to be healthy and good to people and have a bright future. He has none of that, so in the grand scheme of life, I will win. Good luck, girl.



I agree. Don't understand the letter. Write it, then don't send it!


Oh, Lady Who Wrote In! I feel for you so much. I had a similar situation as an only child with my father, who passed about 7 years ago. I ended up cutting him off for a year while in college, then getting back in touch and having a distant (but amicable) relationship until his death. In the end, I was glad I reconnected because I could not have lived with myself if I hadn't. But! Everyone's situation is totally different, and like many here have said- you need to do you, lady. If it's so bad that you absolutely cannot have contact, then don't. That does NOT make you a bad person- it makes you a smart one.

My unsolicited advice (to add to A Lady's very thoughtful, fantastic advice) is this: #1 Get a therapist (if you don't already have one). I have a great one and she's helped me IMMENSELY. Having an outside, completely objective, professional opinion is sometimes hard, but in the end it's a huge help. There is absolutely no reason for you to go through this alone. #2 Think about down the road, after he's passed, and how you'd ideally want things to have ended up. I don't suggest starting a relationship for him, but for you. And if you wouldn't get anything out of that, then it's not worth it. Again, do you! This is all about what you can handle. You are #1 and don't forget it.

I sincerely with you the best with this, and I'm so sorry you've had to go through so many hard times! You'll get through it, no matter what decision you end up making.


I am feeling you, letter-writer. I confronted my violent, raging alcoholic mother about her behavior over a decade ago and gave her my terms: she gets in treatment or we don't have a relationship. She made her choice right then and there: no treatment, no daughter.

There's a letter from her on my desk, unopened. It arrived a week ago.


@spiralbetty Yes to this. Deciding on your terms and sticking to them is essential for self-preservation. Parents are supposed to be our source of strength and knowledge about the world, so when one or both of them don't end up filling that role, you have to step in and fill that role yourself. The choice to refuse treatment, to refuse to acknowledge the damage that a parent has done, is the kind of negation of feelings that the abused child has already dealt with throughout years of trauma. Refuse to accept that negation. Demand to be heard. And if you willfully aren't heard, refuse to engage. This is the path I had to take with my mother-- when I confronted her several years ago, she told me she forgave me for everything I had done. That final denial of the years of abuse and mistreatment was all I needed. Of course I still feel guilty-- as so many have pointed out, guilt is the product of a toxic environment growing up (Catholicism doesn't help, either). But at some point you have to let yourself grow up and be the adult, and not in the way your abusive parent(s) insisted you be the adult when you were just a child. I'm not grateful that you and so many others went through these kinds of things, but it means a lot to hear other voices that now refuse to be silenced. And the people I know that have grown up in similar situations to mine and yours are some of the strongest, most creative, fiercest, fieriest spirits I know. You're all worth more than the crap hand you were dealt, I promise.


@dietrich That moment, when I stopped playing the game, when I said the unsayable as A Lady put it, was enormously liberating. One of the hardest things about it was the gaslighting: mom pretending the drunken rages didn't happen and none of us talking about it. I found it terribly destabilizing to grow up like that, where things went from 'fine' to humiliating and dangerous and back to 'fine' within the course of a day, with no mention ever made about the new marks on the walls. So when I confronted her, even though I didn't get the response that I longed for, it was still one of the best moments of my life. At least I was no longer lying about what went on. New, better things were possible after that.


@spiralbetty My mother wasn't an alcoholic, but she was bipolar and borderline, which translated mostly, strangely enough, into the kinds of rages out of nowhere that you describe. None of the interior doors in our house had working locks by the time I was 13 because she'd broken them all down in various fits of anger. I wonder if you also suffer from bouts of PTSD as a result of this? I particularly have insomnia/inability to fall back asleep at night and horrifying, gory dreams, both of which I'm pretty sure are as a result of always having to be alert as a child. And also similar: the insistence on secrecy. This is why I believe speaking about it means so, so much-- because as abused children, you're trained to keep things secret, and you learn to be embarrassed and blame yourself. Better to be quiet about it than have people judge you. I'm so glad you were able to confront your mother, and I'm so glad you can talk about this now! I really think it's the single most important aspect of breaking the cycle. Now let's figure out ways to explain politely to people that the reason I don't want to have children isn't just politics/desire, but also because I don't want to become my mother... Anyway, you have all my empathy and respect, and please know that others have gone through the hell of not having the mother you deserve, of living through a real life version of some awful monstrous fairy tale. You're not alone.


Ooooh, dietrich. I think we lived in the same house. All of it: the door locks, the perfect PTSD profile, (the freaky hyper-vigilance, the insomnia, the dreams--I won't even describe them, but the gore! I mean, they were so over the top, they're almost entirely just funny now), the shame and secrecy, the zero desire to have children (none of my three siblings have any either).

The 'monstrous fairy tale' is perfect. The best thing ever was realizing how fucking absurd the whole thing was. All that ridiculous drama! Sure, there's a lasting and profound feeling of uncertainty and a lot of therapy, but there was nothing better than knowing that it didn't have to be like that.

Thinking about the original letter writer and her concern about confronting her father, I get it. But if there comes a moment, after all this time, when he's trying to re-establish that secrecy pact with you and it starts to seem ridiculous instead of shameful, that's your moment.


@spiralbetty GIRL. I am so dedicated to responding to you that I'm doing so after just having had oral surgery. My kindred spirit! I think we should at some point exchange horrifying dreams, but perhaps not in a public situation because everyone will think I am totally sick, and not in a RuPaul's Drag Race "sick'ning" kind of way-- mine have been, seriously, so disgusting and awful that I'm even sometimes embarrassed to tell my husband about them! But it's a relief to know that you have had anxiety manifest in this way, too-- and maybe it explains my compulsion to watch horror movies, which, despite my general scaredy-cat-ness, I've had since I was a child.

And yes! The absurdity of it all! Trying to explain to someone who hasn't gone through this kind of thing is made all the more difficult when you say things like, "Now, this part is pretty funny!" Then they look at you like you're the fucking psychopath. I'm curious if you have a really morbid sense of humor now, too....

Also amazing: the big family thing. I likewise come from a large family, and I doubt any of us will have kids (maybe one will, but otherwise, the rest of us? No way). The strongly feminist part of me wonders if I could partially forgive my mother for just not being in the right place to feel like she could be something besides a babymaker-- but then again, I didn't grow up in the 19fucking50s. Still, I can understand snapping from being a housewife to a brood, but...

At any rate, yes to the final paragraph, too. It's about power, about who has power over whom. And remembering how my mother made fun of me, and how humor is a weapon, too, but mostly how the easiest way to take power from someone is sometimes just to laugh at their motivations, well... yeah. That's the moment when you begin to get how you, too, have power, and how it doesn't have to be like this. It's brutally satisfying.


@dietrich My boyfriend and I fell in love over the early films of Peter Jackson (of LTR trilogy fame). Long before he made three huge CGI nerd movies, Jackson made terrible, fantastic, gorgeously campy and somehow really heart-felt, super low-budget gorefest zombie movies. The first time the boyfriend stayed the weekend with me, we watched DeadAlive, far and away my favorite. At one point, while Lionel held a lawnmower, blade-forward, and mowed through a zombie house party, I looked over to see my new boyfriend laughing so hard he was crying. That's how I, the girl with the nightmares and the exaggerated startle response, knew he was the one.

I have alienated some very nice people with my sense of humor. And while they may have recoiled in polite horror at some bleak joke, a few of them have come to me in times of trouble of their own. I guess they knew I could take it, and empathize, and still find the joke. I find that the empathy is strong in our kind. The trick for me is knowing how much of other people's pain to take on. It's a rocky path. I won't dwell on it tonight, but yeah, I understand better now how much pressure my mother was under, and am grateful to have dodged that fate.

But another upside: baking is to insomnia as pie is to coffee for breakfast in bed. Maybe give that whirl when you've recovered, speedily I hope, from oral. fucking. surgery.


@spiralbetty Sweet jesus, are we twins? I wish I had a meet-cute Peter Jackson story (love his early stuff, too, especially Heavenly Creatures; if you're as much a sucker for creature effects as I am, do you like Stuart Gordon? The Thing?), but that recounting is so touching. I hope the two of you are kicking ass for the lord together for years to come.

And, GOD, the empathy thing. I'm kind of proud of mine, in a way, because I know for many of my close friends who are used to being the listener that I'm the one they come to when they need someone to listen. But it's also meant a lot of emotion-sucking friendships that have left me drained and exhausted. I've learned better now, and am usually able head them off at the pass when I see them starting, but it's been a long trajectory.

Here's to vivid apocalyptic dreams, the cheer of baking even if you don't know who it's for, whatever your vice of choice is in moderation, and articulate, smart, strong women like you who hold fiercely onto staying alive. Now I have to take some vicodin.


@dietrich Well. I just... wow. Reanimator! Heavenly Creatures!

And that scene with Wilfred "I want to come back inside" Brimley and the noose in The Thing.

OK, I could do this all day, but I'm on deadline and must. work. all. out. But I'm grinning and wishing you the best Vicodin has to offer.

simone eastbro

@spiralbetty @dietrich

this exchange is so sweet. pretty much kvelling.


@simone eastbro Ms. Dietrich is, apparently, the best.


@spiralbetty Personally, I'm raising a glass of good bourbon (Bulleit or, hell, Bookers) to the divine Spiralbetty.


@dietrich I have an old flask with a cartoon dog wearing a waistcoat and drinking a cocktail and saying, "mmmmm, bourbon" on it.

Mmmm, bourbon.

Ella Quint

A Lady, you've got a real good handle on the sitch without being a profesh
- BUT -
I feel that yer missin' a real big piece of this emotional puzzle - while it's real easy to preach about leaving rotten individuals to sleep in the nasty beds they make, yous gots to remember - its her Dad. We ain't talking about some douche from a reality TV series who's about to get voted off the island, or some shitty next door neighbour who does obnoxious things at odd hours - it's her FATHER. Funny thing happens to yeh when yeh end up with the shit-end of the stick for a number of years; you become really reluctant to give it to someone else because of that first hand experience. I believe the technical term is "empathy".

And while I FULLY and COMPLETELY agree with your advice to the writer to evaluate her own needs, to protect herself from further hurt and abuse, write a letter to begin the communication about that ancient elephant in the room, the acknowledgement (the lack of which may eat you alive - I know) that THIS SHIT HAPPENED; these are all very good things...

I think km1312 hit the nail on the head - this may be a lose-lose, no matter what the approach. No win. And letter writer? If that's what it ends up being, please understand that it's okay. I want so badly for you to be okay.


@Ella Quint A Lady actually DID mention the 'big piece of the emotional puzzle' you say she missed about it being a parent. In the first paragraph she acknowledges that the father connection will always be an issue: "Maybe it's cultural, maybe it's biological, maybe it's a cultural-biological fucked up wire mother thing."


@Ella Quint

A father is someone who functions as a father.
A father who does not, is not.

(Or should get roughly the same respect as a nasty stranger who claims to have solid proof that he fucked your mom.)


this is crazy timing, gah, did so many of us have these horrible twisted relationships with parents? my mother is very ill now but still, still, so much conflict within myself about her.


The thing about "Father" is, happening to be having sex with your mother at the moment she conceived does not give a man carte blanche to treat you like sh!t for years. Ask yourself, has the man earned that title in any way, shape, or form? Only you can answer that. But if the answer happens to be "no", then what kind of relationship should the two of you have?

If you don't want to make the cut "permanent", then just don't call him today. Tomorrow ask yourself if you want to call him, and if the answer is still "no", then don't. Give yourself permission to call him when you *want* to call him. Don't make it an obligation.

Personally I did that ... wow, maybe 10 years ago? He was an abusive drunk (which got much worse after the death of my mother), and one day he left me a message and I decided not to return it. I told myself I'd call him when I wanted to. And all these years later, I still have no urge to call him. Maybe tomorrow I will. But I doubt it. My life is just fine without him.


@stalkingcat That kind of reminds me of sobriety. You just have to decide to go through today without using a substance. You have to break the issue up into today-sized chunks because thinking about it in terms of permanence or eternity makes it seem undoable. It's a good strategy.


i had a great family growing up so i am no where near the expert for this question, but my mom's dad and susquent step-dad's were not good guys by any means. we have talked about her history w/ them many times.
what i gather is this writer doesnt even want to have a relationship and it is all force which makes her unhappy. why do something that makes you unhappy. her conscience might bother her, but i guess it boils down to which makes her the most unhappy.
family is supposed to protect and love you. just b/c his name is on her birth certificate doesnt mean she has to feel obligated to him in his twilight years.


I have a similar situation. My mother passed away when I was in my early teens and my older brother was away in college. I ended up living alone with my narcissistic, verbally abusive, emotionally distant father for 7 years. After years of struggling with our ridiculously unhealthy relationship (and probably boring the hell out of my therapist) I packed up and moved to the opposite coast. I suspect that eventually my father will try to re-establish 'closeness' with me in his old age, and if he does, I only hope I can manage to occasionally spend time with him in his final years without losing my cool.

Everyone's shitty parents are different, but in my case my father has never been able to admit to himself that he was terrible, and I don't think he ever will. He knows that I was traumatized by him, and that I grapple with his bullshit daily, but he represses it because it interferes with his overinflated sense of self. My telling him all the ways he hurt me would not be terribly constructive and would probably just be a chance for him to further try and gaslight me out of my own opinions ("you take everything too seriously" etc).

What I am saying is that in the end you need to do what is good FOR YOU. Losing a parent made me realize how hard it is to carry regrets/guilt in those final years/days. I know that giving what limited part of me I can to my father when he asks for it will alleviate my sense of not having done enough. I can't choose my family but I can choose to create a healthy alternative family with my friends and partner/spouse (and helpful long term therapist). I can also choose to live a minimum of three states away from my biological family (highly recommended!). And I think this emotional and physical distance makes it possible for me to consider throwing him a bone when the time does come.

Great question! I love hairpin!

Mati Senerchia@facebook

This is a really great response. Really fine.

The only thing we know about this man is that he was abusive and became more abusive after being widowed. There's a lot of ground not covered in that description, like - is he a narcissist? Is this attempt at reconciliation about pretending everything's fine and he's always been a good guy, or opening the door to talking about his mistakes and apologizing? Because those are two totally different paths, one to a new kind of abuse and one to healing. So I am all in favor of a conscious, self-protecting feeling out, just the way A Lady says. Because the dad wasn't born a monster, any more than the writer was born anxious and depressed. The big revelation of my life has been how much better my parents gave than they ever got. It's worth finding out.


@Mati Senerchia@facebook

Always remembering that, while there may be explanations for why abuse occurs, there are no excuses. NONE, EVER.

But it's good to know the explanations.


"What really strikes me about your note is that if you were to try to have a relationship with him, there would be pretty much nothing in it for you, nothing for you to gain. It would, as you envision it, serve his needs exclusively."

No. I think the letter-writer has suggested what she hopes to gain: She wants to help make what's left of her father's life less bad if she can. Doing so will give her satisfaction, a sense of fulfilling a duty (whether it's a true duty or not), the feeling of being a generous and caring person.

Whether that will happen or not, I can't say. But it does seem to me that she does plan to get something from the relationship, by interacting with her father and giving him a relationship that he seems to want. I think she hopes to feel good about herself by being kind to someone who doesn't deserve it.


@mmwm I disagree. She doesn't say she wants to make his final years better. She says, "I don't want to make his final years horrible." Because she believes that she has some responsbility in that.

I get the impression that she feels pressured to hang out with him but not discuss the abuse, and that he's trying to make her feel like anything else will make him unhappy.

She needs to get over feeling like his happiness is under her control.


Very moving post. I'm glad you answered this. I'm in a similar situation with my bipolar/abusive mom. Only difference is, she has early-onset dementia and despite only being in her late 50s, is on unemployment and convinced she'll never work again. She's a mental basketcase, has no sense of boundaries, and on top of it, very little financial stability.

I've tried to cut ties with her but there is some visceral mother-daughter bond that makes it SO HARD to "abandon" someone, even if that someone emotionally abused you daily and routinely destroyed your self-esteem/happiness from an early age.

The hardest part is knowing that her parents abused her too, she was raped, and had other issues. She was a horrible mom because she was psychologically damaged from the start. It's very difficult for me to condemn her by saying "she made terrible choices" because I know she's the result of horrible circumstances, too. Where does the chain of causality start? All I know is I need to break the abuse cycle, no matter what it takes.... glad to know there's other people out there dealing with this ambiguous, challenging issue.


It breaks my heart that there are so many people with abusive parents. It's almost two years ago I left home shy of my 20th birthday. My father was abusive, my mother was a terrible diplomat. I spent a couple months hungry and sleeping on sofas but it was worth it to be free of the daily trauma.
There's always that sadness and guilt that will throw you on occasion but really it's because you want your dad/mom to act like your dad/mom. Sometimes they're just fucked up humans who have no business being parents. All of us Grown-Ass-Ladies are responsible for our happiness, you have to be your own support system and do what's right for you. A Lady-whoever you may be, I wish I could hug you, all of us deserve it.

Mae Saslaw@twitter

Wow, The Hairpin, let's talk about daddy issues more often. Because I don't think any of us do it enough, and it's one of those things where as soon as you start talking about it everyone is just like, "Oh, shit, here we go, I have no idea how to react!" And you guys all really nailed it.

My turn: Dad left when I was eight, I thought my parents were just getting divorced like everyone else's, but then he left town and was effectively disappeared. He'd come back every few years, and I have memories of being in a court room and a (lady) judge asking me whether I wanted to see my dad or not. I think my exact 12-year old thoughts were, "I don't care, whatever's easier for you guys." My dad's angle was always that it was unfair for him to get drug treatment (for pot! POT! How does that even HAPPEN?!) as a prerequisite for seeing his daughter. He kept saying that one day I'd understand and we'd have a relationship again. Wrong. I stopped missing him—we had had a good relationship, I had no idea he was a maniac, and I really do have fond memories prior to his leaving—and I realized that there really isn't anything in it for me, and I don't give a fuck about what he wants.

One day in college I got a MySpace message from a woman who said she'd been living with my dad for years and that he'd had a seizure. I wrote back and told her that I didn't care, and that I was writing back because I wanted to know any medical information that might someday be pertinent to my own health. I got a few random IMs from a girl a few years younger than me, who at first claimed to be (and maybe was?) interested in my writing, and then she was like, "Oh, your dad and my mom are going out, he talks about you a lot and he's nice and you should call him." And I was like, "Sorry honey, you have no idea, and he just tricked you into doing the work he's been afraid to do for his whole fucking life. Bye." The thing is, whenever I'd hear from him between the ages of like 14-18, I told myself I'd give him a chance if he ever once apologized for, you know, deciding all by himself that it was okay for me to grow up fatherless as long as he got to be crazy and not deal with my mother. He never did. He didn't think he had a single fucking thing to apologize for. And once he started getting the timelines wrong and re-writing history, I realized there was no point in me even trying to explain to him how I'd felt.

TL;DR: Some girls and women react to the realization that daddy doesn't love you by being understandably crushed and feeling inadequate and thinking that changing this fact will redeem them both. For myself, and it sounds like a lot of you ladies as well, this realization freed me from a lifetime of guilt and wondering what-if and caring what happens to the guy. It also kinda set me up for some unhealthy relationships in which I realized too late that I wanted some (older) dude's affection to make up for my dad's absence because, you know, psychology. But I'll take that any day over letting my dad feel like he made the right choice, even for a second.


Better to Eat You With

@Mae Saslaw@twitter "Dad left when I was eight, I thought my parents were just getting divorced like everyone else's, but then he left town and was effectively disappeared. He'd come back every few years, and I have memories of being in a court room and a (lady) judge asking me whether I wanted to see my dad or not. I think my exact 12-year old thoughts were, 'I don't care, whatever's easier for you guys.'"

I think you might be me, up to this point, except I was six. And every few years of my adulthood, my stepmother has tracked me down and tried to manipulate me into calling him.

Mae Saslaw@twitter

@Better to Eat You With That's the worst. It's like they just assume you're/we're maladjusted and susceptible to that bullshit. Fuck that noise.


Everything, everything here, wonderful.


This is incredibly fantastic, smart, compassionate advice.

Jennifer Michelle@facebook

I am going to bookmark this and reference it whenever I consider allowing my father back into my life. In fact, I have recently struggled after he sent me a linkedin request and a skype request after more than a year of no contact. So reassuring to hear that it is okay to NOT re-establish contact, as so many people take the "do what's best for you but he IS your father" route.

So, long story short, thank you, A Lady and commenters.


Dear Letter-writer,
Your situation reminds me of my mother and her father. He was not a warm and fuzzy guy. That relationship was totally fucked and psychologically abusive. He would basically use my mom as an excuse to cheat on my grandmother. Like, "Hey, I'm going to take my daughter to the movies" and then when they got to the movie theater, the mistress would be there. Yeah, gross.

Anyway, they never really had a relationship. On his death bed, my grandfather apologized for everything he did to my grandmother, but never once did he apologize to my mom, which was the one and only thing she ever wanted in her life. So basically it was another slap in the face as she sat there holding his hand as he died. There's so much more to the story, but that's the cliff notes version.

After he died, mom immediately started seeing a therapist b/c she just couldn't deal with the disappointment. It helped her tremendously. When I talked to her on Mothers Day, she mentioned how she thought it was such a huge deal how she could now talk about her father without immediately bursting into tears. She did the therapy for herself and her own peace of mind.

Please find a therapist. If you don't like your therapist, keep looking until you find one that you like. You've been through so much already. Do this one thing for yourself. You don't owe him anything.


A late to the party addition: One thing I have tried to do lately for myself is to remember who the real parent was in all of this: me. I raised myself for more than half of my childhood. I may not have been a perfect mom/dad, but I was a hell of a lot better than the failed parental figure I was stuck with, and I was a quarter of his age! What an amazing accomplishment. Try to tell yourself this whenever you get down. If you have managed to get a decent job, good relationship, or a minimum amount of debt, etc, this is amazing considering the up hill battle you have had to wage.


@adminslave YES to being the parent. Just... YES. I feel you, so much.


Anyone who has been abused, however long ago, should get checked out for PTSD. If you have it, get treated--it's like a multiplier effect for the original abuse.



@atipofthehat Have you had success with treating this (if you have it)? I am curious.



Yes! Even just recognizing the behaviors that come with it (I had almost a complete set!) is a huge help. I can post some links to books that might help later. I was also what you describe above, which therapists call a "parentalized child"--a child who has had to play the role of parent in order to survive--and there are issues that go along with that, too (good ones to be proud of, but many that can get in one's way as well).


@atipofthehat Yeah, I think for me I definitely got PTSD after watching my Mom die of cancer for 4 years (from 10-14)--my Dad was just more fun! I had nightmares about my Mom for years after, but those have relented and I have a very fuzzy memory about the whole thing. My major hurdle has been the whole "can't see a future," I have always had a hard time seeing myself in 5 years, or even a year, I just sort of presume I will be ok by then (its not really a depression thing, i literally can't see myself doing things in the future). That seems to be a part of PTSD. Its weird, and I wonder if other people think this way.

Book recommendations are always welcome! Thanks.


@adminslave "I have always had a hard time seeing myself in 5 years, or even a year, I just sort of presume I will be ok by then (its not really a depression thing, i literally can't see myself doing things in the future). That seems to be a part of PTSD. Its weird, and I wonder if other people think this way."

Yep. In spades.

For me, therapy really helped with that--not that I'm all super self-actualized and everything now, but better. And the quality of the therapist was secondary to me going regularly, in terms of where the benefit of therapy came from. It was a thing I was doing for myself, to air out and tidy up my disordered thinking, and kind of check in with my basic humanity, which always seemed kind of tenuous.


@atipofthehat Seconded to the max! Even if you don't go get professional help, just educating yourself on PTSD can be a big, big help. I experienced so many PTSD symptoms, but they were all in separate chunks, and all of them came along with some seemingly reasonable explanations. Like, you know, I was really tired today, that's why I got upset. I've been under a lot of stress. That guy was totally a jerk. I haven't been eating well. I always get crabby around the holidays. One day, I got really triggered by a super pushy solicitor, and I finally realized that my reactions were just COMPLETELY out of whack, that it wasn't reasonable or explainable that I had to go have a panic attack in the bathroom because some asshole wanted to sell me magazines. But until it got pushed to the realm of the absurd, it was so, so easy to assume what I was experiencing was normal and reasonable and I just had to grit my teeth and get through it, because that's what everybody does when they're having a "bad day", right?

Two great things about realizing OH it's PTSD I GET IT NOW:

1. You suddenly have an explanation for why some things are so hard for you and not that hard for others. Everybody says things like, "I just had a bad day, I can't deal with this right now." I didn't realize their "can't deal with it" meant they were going to go home and, like, have an extra bowl of ice cream, whereas my "can't deal with it" meant I had to go find a secluded place to have a panic attack and then maybe stay indoors the rest of the week. I just thought I was really weak and lazy, since everybody else seemed able to shake off in a few hours what seemed to take me days. Once I realized it was PTSD, it was such a relief to know I'd been comparing apples to oranges. Things really *were* harder for me, which is why they *felt* harder and why I always seemed to have to work harder to get by day to day. Such a more logical explanation than "you must be broken, surly, you'll never be happy."

2. Once you can identify some of your shit as PTSD, you can identify your other shit as other shit and deal with it accordingly. For example! I have always had sleep problems. I assumed that it was due to coming from abusive scenarios where I had to wake up and be completely coherent and ready to run on a dime. Seems reasonable, right? I went and dealt with my PTSD, all my other symptoms went away, but my sleep problems were still there. So I went to a doctor for those, and guess what? I've got fucking narcolepsy. Never would've figured that out if I didn't learn about PTSD -- I would've just kept on thinking that I was somehow unable to manage the sleepiness that I assumed everybody else had, or kept thinking that because of an abusive childhood I would just always be a sleepy insomniac. But no! I've got an actual condition that my PTSD was hiding.



Still looking for that book! Will post when I find it.

Since the old Gawker days have loved your "Teen Beef Thief Nabbed In Sirloin Purloin" avatar.


@atipofthehat No worries; let me know when you find the title. The sullenness of my avatar has always appealed to me, and who can beat leaving a meat trail from the grill to the apartment? Also, steak is expensive, so I feel her.

Celita Jamison@facebook

I didn't read all of the comments. I certainly can relate to the writer. When my mother passed, I had to ask myself the question after several months of a very difficult grieving process.."how do I resolve this, when there really isn't a resolution...how do I keep grieving?". Because I was in therapy when she died I realized that I was grieving the "what ifs". I wish I could have forgiven her when she was alive...not for her, but for me. On her death bed in a semicomatose state, she managed to let me know that she really doesn't like me very much. Well, I tell you that was a slap in the face!!! I have come to realize that most parents have the best of intentions even when the things they have said and done are so hurtful and that the fact that she didn't like me probably had more to do with what I represented than who I am. That is the attitude that is helping me. I continue in therapy because I am all messed up because of things that happened to me as a child and even as an adult. However, as fu**ed as I am, to continue to be angry with my mother wouldn't make me any less f***ed up. I also recommend getting a therapist to help you make the decisions that will cause you the LEAST amount of pain. Good luck!

simone eastbro

Do you all know that witnessing your courage makes my heart grow?

Valerie Wright@facebook

I had a kinda similar situation, except that it was my mother that was abusive and father a passive noodle who fled the scene. (BTW - you might check into borderline personality syndrome which sounds like your father). Now in his old age, my father wants to reclaim the lost chance to have a relationship with me. The very, very most important thing I discovered was doing the forgiveness work -- for yourself. In the end, I wrote him an email, forgiving him and wishing him the best. With that, I released my feeling of guilty responsibility for him. It will work out for you. Bless your heart.


I know everyone on here has had a great outpour of support and it makes me really happy. Just to throw myself in, here's another girl with an abusive parent while another one was incredibly sick, who had to grow up and learn to take care of herself. It took me a while to realize this but YOU are your most important asset. Yes, it's selfish, but you're all you have. You're self-reliant and independent, and you can't let yourself be held back by a parent just because they want a relationship. You always must do what's best for yourself.


I was abused by my step-father for the majority of my childhood. While I was able to get past his abuse to this day I am still unable to get past my Mother letting this happen to me (plus the fact she denies it ever happened). The advise you gave about having a relationship with the abuser was amazing to say the least. Honestly, most people tell me "Oh, but she's your Mom and you should forgive her". To them I say "You didn't live my life and if you want her go have her".

Thank you for putting into words how I feel....I am a grown Ass lady and don't need to have a reltionship with a parent who never was...


Thank you for the advice. When I was little my parents divorced because of my dad's abuse. Then my mom died when I was 8, I was thrust from a loving, caring, supportive home to what seemed like the exact opposite. I lived with him for 8 years through his drug addiction and abuse until his eventual arrest and jail sentence when I was 16. Basically I've raised myself and have been a one man support group all my life. My dad has since cleaned up and now wants to be part of my life, to go as far as moving within walking distance from me. I dread his calls and having to meet with him. Again, thank you for this piece, I will be referencing this until I figure out how to confront him.


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